The life of a marine biologist turns out to involve a lot of time sitting in front of a computer screen, writing and editing papers and proposals so other people can get out in the field (though I do get my share from time to time), academic intrigues, bureaucracy, and so on. Still I wouldn’t trade it for anything else . . .
But last week, I remembered why I got into this business in the first place. We met three old (I mean former) college buddies and families and our ringleader Professor from Spring Hill College for a few days of snorkeling, fishing, music, merrymaking and general loafing in the Florida Keys. This was a memorable reunion since three of us (along with one compatriot who, alas, could not make it) had our introduction to the underwater world of the reef on a long, Kerouacian pilgrimage to the Keys in 1980, roughing it all the way through Florida from Mobile, Alabama in an uncovered pickup truck, with sleeping bags and guitar, surviving on peanut butter, generic beer, maybe ten bucks a day, uphill both ways — you get the picture.
Fortunately, we could afford a few more creature comforts this time, what with kids and all. Dave hauled his boat down from Baton Rouge so we were able to get out into the deep blue. We ran out through the low mangrove scrub of Largo Sound across the lagoon to Molasses Reef, skipping over the turquoise sand patches in the fresh morning air, great cumulus masses of white over the tropical ocean, the Sea to ourselves on a Monday morning. Just sitting next to my boy, watching the sun playing on the waves, and dappling the bottom. Now and then a flying fish launching away from the approaching boat and sailing away glittering into the distance. A turtle’s head breaks the surface briefly, then slides back in. Watching a small squall on the distant horizon. I was suddenly struck by the sense of being in a magical, important moment that I will remember for a long time. Sitting next to the boy, surrounded by the tropic Sea that has been my muse for all of my adult life. “Now”, I said to him,” you can see why I became a marine biologist, why I come out to these places again and again, to see these animals and study them.” And I think he did see.
Into the drink. The water over the reef was sparkling and clear, excellent visibility. The boy held his own, taking to snorkeling like, well, a fish to water. On the rising tide and with an offshore wind, the reef was a wonderland — fantastic visibility. Right off the bat, at the base of the buoy line, a hawksbill turtle, just lying on the bottom. We watched it for several minutes. A small barracuda, a school of midnight parrotfish. And another dive: the startling apparition of a four-foot tarpon, schools of chub and yellowtail snapper swirling around us, nearly colliding with our masks. A nurse shark cruising the bottom. He had been looking forward to this for weeks and, somewhat unexpectedly, it was everything he hoped it would be. Kudos to the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary for making sure there are still some big ones around here.
The next day, skittering over a glassy sea, we got out beyond the reef into the deeps of the straits of Florida — a magical, hypnotic day of luminous blue as far as the eye can see, above and below. Sundrenched, windless, nothing moving but the occasional distant terns dropping into the water, signalling big fish below driving up the minnows. We trolled for an hour or so, lolling through the becalmed Sea till bang! The one and only hit of the day, which brought up a dolphin (mahi-mahi, if you prefer) big enough to feed the whole group. Forty-two inches stem to stern, and 23 pounds. A beautiful creature (and, I’m happy to say, a fast-growing fish whose commercial harvest is considered sustainable).
Motoring back through the clear blue morning, brilliant clouds towering on the horizon, I allowed myself to think that, yes, there is hope for the Ocean. There is certainly plenty of serious bad news. But being out in the deep blue adds a little perspective. The corals will not survive, in all probability, and the reefs that we dove in 1980 will not long be recognizable as we knew them. But there are still fishes and turtles and clear blue water and sun. We can save at least the fish — their abundance here in the protection of the Sanctuary is a hopeful sign — and if we can keep the water blue and clean and clear, I’m hopeful that one day my son’s children, or grandchildren, or perhaps their children, will see this again, after the difficult transition to a new energy regime and a new economy of materials, perhaps in boats powered by biodiesel or even electricity generated by a technology we haven’t even dreamed of yet. May it be so. May they one day bring their own kids to this place to see these fish and remember how it was the same when they came with their parents when they were young.